Knives Out had me with the directness of its setup: a fancy manse; a rich, dysfunctional family; and a shocking murder in need of a solution. In walks Detective Benoit Blanc (played by Daniel Craig), a master crime-solver with a résumé as thick as his southern accent. “I suspect foul play … I have eliminated no suspects,” he intones when asked why he’s there. The writer and director Rian Johnson, who assembled this project quickly after spending years in the franchise-filmmaking trenches with The Last Jedi, initially seems to be seeking out simplicity—a traditional drawing-room whodunit right out of Agatha Christie’s library. But the fun really begins when Knives Out starts flouting its genre’s rules.
That inventiveness shouldn’t be too surprising given Johnson’s career. Starting in 2005 with his breakout debut, Brick, a teenage noir homage, he’s been a filmmaker who draws from the classics but gives them sparkly new packages. Even The Last Jedi challenged the storytelling conventions of the long-winded Star Wars saga with humor and pique, rather than just reaffirming them (and stunned many a fan as a result). While Knives Out is a more straightforward proposition, a murder mystery that ties up every loose end, many of its best thrills come in the narrative hairpin turns Johnson makes along the way.
The film keeps the crucial tropes of a Christie plot, namely ostentatious wealth, a cast of colorful characters with blaring personality disorders, and a cunning detective who lives only to crack the case before him. Yet it’s set in the present day, dispensing with the antiquated fortunes of Poirot’s usual suspects. Instead, Johnson conjures a coterie of modern, rich buffoons—all of them related to the successful crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who is found stabbed on the night of his 85th birthday.
Who could’ve done it? There’s Harlan’s daughter-in-law, Joni (Toni Collette), a self-styled lifestyle guru who dispenses quack medical advice that even Gwyneth Paltrow would wrinkle her nose at. His daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), is a real-estate mogul who constantly brags about being “self-made” despite receiving her father’s support. Harlan’s son, Walter (Michael Shannon), runs his dad’s publishing company, where his entire job seems to consist of printing and selling his father’s latest masterpiece. Even the grandkids, who include the handsome-jerk playboy Ransom (Chris Evans) and the taciturn alt-right-troll teenager Jacob (Jaeden Martell), are curdled in their own ways. Amid all the chaos and bickering, Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s live-in nurse, gets patronizing head pats from the rest of the family but is otherwise largely ignored.
Detective Blanc is ostensibly the film’s hero and serves as the audience’s surrogate, interrogating family members and sniffing around for clues. But Marta is the heart of the movie—a character who might easily be dismissed as a stock supporting role, but whom Johnson plants in the foreground. There’s no subtlety to Johnson’s message: The film champions a hardworking daughter of immigrants in a film about upper-class snobs scrambling to secure their inherited wealth. This is 2019, and one of the villains is a pale teen boy who posts offensive invective on Twitter.
But the detective genre has never been subtle. It’s a world where the investigator is intelligence personified and the suspects (as well as the viewers) are his captive audience, waiting for the answers to be revealed after two hours of careful deduction. Through Marta and Detective Blanc, who become impromptu partners in search of the truth, Johnson is telling a story about what justice might look like in America today—while also having plenty of fun.
The film’s advertising has obscured almost every detail of the plot besides the absolute basics, a difficult achievement today. So I’ll say only that while Knives Out is a whodunit with a twist ending, it’s just as concerned with why and how the murder was done as it is with the killer’s identity; the seemingly huge pieces of information dropped early on turn out to be small pieces of the puzzle. The art of a cinematic murder mystery is to make the act of putting clues together seem suspenseful and worth watching. In the hands of Craig at his most gleeful, de Armas at her career best, and Johnson oozing love for the genre, Knives Out rises splendidly to the task.